Women scientists on the debate over women in science


Earlier this week, the New York Times published the first part of a two-part series by John Tierney looking at the current state of women in the sciences—in particular, whether the playing field can ever really be level, or whether innate neural differences mean there will always be more men getting ahead in science and math careers than women.

When Dr. Larry Summers raised the issue to fellow economists and other researchers at a conference in 2005, his hypothesis was caricatured in the press as a revival of the old notion that "girls can't do math." But Dr. Summers said no such thing. He acknowledged that there were many talented female scientists and discussed ways to eliminate the social barriers they faced. Yet even if all these social factors were eliminated, he hypothesized, the science faculty composition at an elite school like Harvard might still be skewed by a biological factor: the greater variability observed among men in intelligence test scores and various traits.

Men and women might, on average, have equal mathematical ability, but there could still be disproportionately more men with very low or very high scores. These extremes often don't matter much because relatively few people are involved, leaving the bulk of men and women clustered around the middle. But a tenured physicist at a leading university, Dr. Summers suggested, might well need skills and traits found in only one person in 10,000: the top 0.01 percent of the population, a tiny group that would presumably include more men because it's at the extreme right tail of the distribution curve.

There've been a lot of responses to this article since it came out, but I wanted to know what actual female scientists thought. After the cut, you can read the perspectives of four smart women who have four different, insightful takes on the issue:

  • Dr. Carolyn Porco is a planetary scientist, and the leader of the Cassini spacecraft imaging team.
  • Dr. Kirsten Sanford is a neurophysiologist who left the lab for a career in science journalism.
  • Dr. Esther Takeuchi is the Greatbatch Professor in Power Sources Research in the University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a winner of the National Medal of Technology.
  • Dr. Isis is a physiologist at a major research university who blogs about succeeding as a woman in academia.

Dr. Carolyn Porco: Standardized tests vs. real world success

With regard to the recent news that, after decades of `gap narrowing', differences still exist in standardized test performance between boys and girls at the extreme end of the distribution of test scores … I think that this result, even if permanent, has little bearing on which gender will be better equipped to succeed in scientific careers. There is so much more involved in doing scientific research than just raw mental abilities.

Given an adequate to above-average measure of analytical ability, it next comes down almost entirely to personality. Traits like drive, persistence, focus, confidence, insightfulness, emotional intelligence, ability to rebound from setbacks, ability to accept criticism, enjoyment of solitude, and an abiding, intense desire *to know* that will separate out those who succeed from those who don't. In any `big science' enterprise, like planetary exploration, where you must work in big teams of similarly driven people, it is important also to know how to work alongside others even when they may be your fiercest competitors. I've known males whose analytical abilities were off the charts—the ones on the extreme end of the curve that we are now discussing—but who just couldn't cut it in the world of scientific research, because they lacked some important personality trait.

So, I don't agree that we can find excuses in the results of standardized test scores for the uneven distribution of males and females in academic departments and other science-related positions. There are other legitimate reasons why the male/female numbers don't reflect the general population, but the new findings are probably not among them.

It might be that females, who tend to be more sociable, don't gravitate to a lifestyle that requires a great deal of solitude.

Also, child-rearing is still, to my viewpoint, a largely female responsibility, and it's not easy to be very dedicated to a career—any career—and be a mother also. Women do it, but it's just not that easy.

I think a large factor is the barrage of messages that girls receive from their surroundings … parents, friends, internet, advertisements, the culture at large. I'm thrilled to see that amidst the cacophony of messages that we all receive (but that young people are most susceptible to) we find the pitch that girls can be capable at analytical thinking, mathematics, science, politics, and just about everything else that has been traditionally available to males. This has been growing since I was a young woman and it's been encouraging to see.

But, it is still the case: being a scientist is not as socially acceptable as other pursuits. It's true still for boys; it's far, far more prevalent for girls. For instance, we have over a thousand Cassini-interested individuals who are members of the CICLOPS Alliance—a group that interacts with each other and with other Cassini scientists in a forum (of sorts) that takes place on the CICLOPS website. And the vast majority of these folks are males. And the audience profile for the entire CICLOPS website is largely male. And even my being a female and leading this experiment hasn't drawn the same numbers of women as it has men.

Also, let's not forget: females have a special challenge when entering a male-dominated field that operates on male cultural norms and requires male traits—assertiveness, even aggressiveness, competitiveness, etc.—to be successful. When males act like males, they are doing what is expected and are rewarded for it. When a woman acts like a male (which is what she HAS to do to be successful), she is very much regarded otherwise. How many women will be able to handle that? The threshold for those in the vanguard is awfully steep. We still have a long way to go.

However, things ARE improving. There are SO many more women in the field of planetary science, my field, than there were when I was young, and that's a great sign. And with more and more entering these male-dominated fields, the threshold will get lower. The culture of behaviors will change, and with that, expectations will change and will be more accommodating of females. It will get easier.

I do think that putting too much credence in the results under debate could frighten away young women who aren't so confident to begin with. How should we be judging whether or not the sciences have been made more inclusive? Make education more accessible to women—ALL women, not just Americans. Reward them as much for their work as you reward the males, and they will fill all niches eventually, and that will change the complexion of the whole enterprise. I think the numbers are growing and that it has become more inclusive already. I don't worry too much about there not being the proper ratio between males and females near the top. It will happen eventually.

Dr. Kirsten Sanford: "Different" doesn't mean "better" or "worse"

I agree with Tierney that Summers was pilloried for some unfortunate statements on a very touchy subject. After going back to read the transcript again, I think he was really trying to start a conversation (so many prefacing disclaimer-like statements leading up to his main ideas). However, it's very difficult to publicly address the possible reasons that we see such an obvious imbalance between women and men in academic hiring. Suggest that it might be for biological reasons as opposed to strictly social reasons, and you risk opening an unmanageable can of worms, which Summers discovered all too late.

But, in discussing the extreme right tail, Summers did and Tierney does miss the bigger point. Is the academic institution too entrenched in its devotion to those few scientific individuals who make up the extreme right tail? The scientific and academic enterprise is much larger than the physics departments of the top 10 top tier universities. Yet, we see the hiring biases persist throughout the system.

About five years ago, I spent a lot of time looking at the University of California's hiring practices, and speaking with people who had worked on the issue since the 70's. The consensus was that hard work over the preceding three decades at changing systemic awareness by implementing workshops and hiring practice protocols (i.e. affirmative action) had significantly improved the ratio of women to men across the board, but that a recent complacency had led to dramatic drops. Just looking within the UC system, we can therefore see evidence that systemic adjustments do decrease the gender hiring bias. It might not solve the problem, but it certainly can't hurt.

We have to seriously think about the reasons that the extreme right tail individuals are seen to succeed in the sciences. Of course, there is a natural propensity for analytical thought, but isn't there also a systemic bias, a social bias to be impressed by and favor individuals with higher test scores? Does science tend to value the higher math test scores over higher verbal test scores? If so, is this smart considering that most of research involves creativity and communication in addition to data collection and analysis?

Back to hiring again, we know there is currently no shortage of female undergrads in the sciences, and numbers of male applicants are decreasing. Similarly, more and more women are pursuing PhDs. Also, as Tierney stated, women are promoted and get grants as often as men. Why are fewer women than men getting hired for academic tenure-track positions? There is something wrong here, and I don't think it is explained by the extreme right tail.

Yes, there is plenty of research that supports the idea that women's brains generally collect and process information differently from men's. But, as has been stated many times before, different doesn't mean better or worse. Science stands to lose significantly if it refuses to productively address the biases that currently exist in the system. It's worth a try to see if awareness workshops initiate a change in attitudes because, really, we can collect data until we are drowning in it and generate alternative hypotheses until we gorge ourselves on them, but we will never know if we can change things unless we try.

Dr. Esther Takeuchi: Encouraging women in science isn't just good for the women—it's good for the science

I would like to respond to the article by making two points. The first point is that
participation of women is good for science. The second point is that it is now time to act to
resolve the continuing lack of participation by women.

The first point: participation of women is good for science and may help in addressing
the many technical issues that still face the world today. Perspective may be an important aspect of problem solving in science. Scientific problems often are revisited over time by a variety of scientists with each individual making a small but unique contribution towards the solution. What is considered creativity on the part of an individual may in fact be a different perspective.

In order to solve problems which are currently considered intractable, it may be critical to involve people who are traditionally not participants in the scientific process, especially women because of the unique perspective that they bring. The current numbers that I have seen demonstrate that there are still far too few women in science. I submit that anybody who can bring a different perspective brings a new level of creativity, precisely because they think about solutions in different ways.

The second point: it is now time to act. Often, situations arise where it is obvious that
action rather than further study is needed. If your house is on fire, you do not want to
commission a study on the nature of matches and their relationship to wood. Rather, you want to take action and put out the fire.

In parallel or subsequent to extinguishing the fire, it is certainly valuable to understand more about its cause. The situation with women in science is similar. Roughly 50% of the population is underrepresented in scientific fields of growing importance for the 21st century. It is not good for science or the country to continue this trend. It is now time for action rather than to rationalize further delay in action by requiring further causal analysis.

In closing, the low participation of women and some ethnic groups in science may be
more grounded in the culture of science than in the ability of the women and other groups. It is important that the culture of science, math and engineering be inclusive rather than exclusive. In order to solve problems which are currently considered intractable, it may be critical to involve people who traditionally have not been participants in the scientific process.

Dr. Isis: I am bored to tears with this "debate"

John Tierney titles his article "Daring to Discuss Women's Potential in Science," as though he is bravely daring to out the dirty little secret that we all supposedly know deep in our hearts. Girls suck at math and science. The truth is, they really don't. It's just that John Tierney sucks at googling.

Tierney wrote his article in response to the passage of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 by the US House of Representatives. Section 124 of Subtitle C under Title I of this 248 page bill is titled "Fulfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering" (see page 68 of the bill). This section requires that:

…the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy shall develop a uniform policy for all Federal science agencies to carry out a program of workshops that educate program officers, members of grant review panels, institution of higher education STEM department chairs,and other federally funded researchers about methods that minimize the effects of gender bias in evaluation of Federal research grants and in the related academic advancement of actual and potential recipients of these grants, including hiring, tenure, promotion, and selection for any honor based in part on the recipient's research record.

He then continues to outline the evidence that boys tend to be the top scorers in math and science when measured via standardized aptitude tests, even if there is no difference between the means.

Yet, he clearly has ignored the fact that this phenomenon is unique to the United States. Indeed, in countries with more gender equal cultural norms, the divide disappears. In Iceland, girls out perform boys in math and science. Japanese girls out perform American boys. Maybe in his next column Tierney will argue some type of evolutionary difference between the boys and girls in these other countries and American boys and girls. Personally, I would find it much more interesting if he would start posting recipes for pies we could make with all the cherries he's picking.

When he brings up the evidence that the gender gap in aptitude tests has not shown the same rate of closing that it once did, he misses the evidence that the performance of elementary school aged girls on these tests is related to the level of anxiety displayed by their almost exclusively female teachers, who have been socially pre-conditioned with this anxiety. This anxiety remains abundant.

But, thank goodness for all of us that Tierney is daring to ask the tough questions. Maybe next time he'll also dare to completely research a topic before he writes an article. However, where he really fails, and fails hard, is here:

But a tenured physicist at a leading university…might well need skills and traits found in only one person in 10,000: the top 0.01 percent of the population, a tiny group that would presumably include more men because it's at the extreme right tail of the distribution curve.

Even when you consider only members of an elite group like the top percentile of the seventh graders on the SAT math test, someone at the 99.9 level is more likely than someone at the 99.1 level to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university.

Can we all agree that Tierny pulled this completely out of his ass? Someone who scores in the top 99.9% of an aptitude test is more likely to get tenure than someone who scores in the top 99.1% in the seventh grade? Really?

As my dear brothers PhysioProf and Drugmonkey have discussed on their blog, scientific knowledge, per se, does not predict one's success as a tenured academic researcher. Managing a lab as a principal investigator at a major research university requires management skills, the ability to effectively communicate to the scientific community and obtain grant dollars, the ability to effectively teach and mentor more junior scientists, and the ability to creatively outline novel research directions. I would argue that these things are not necessarily predicted by an aptitude test taken in the seventh grade.

Which, brings us back to the idea of gender bias and culture. This is where we need to be looking in order to close the gender gap in STEM. Recently ScienceMama from the Mother of All Scientists sent me a link to this article from Science about how successful academic women learn to outsource daily tasks like housekeeping, childcare, and laundry. While, I think the advice is generally good, ScienceMama picked up on the underlying social message of the article. She wrote to me:

I can't exactly put into words why this article bothers me so much. I understand the general intention of the article, but for some reason the take home message for me seems to be "If you're a female scientist, you need to hire a housekeeper, whereas if you're a male scientist you can just get a wife."

By focusing just on female scientists, it seems like what the article is saying is that domestic chores are a woman's responsibility. Why shouldn't male scientists also be encouraged to get a housekeeper to cover all the work they are clearly neglecting at home?

Again, I understand that the article was well-intentioned (spend your limited free time with your family or on a hobby instead of mopping your floors), but the fact that it's aimed only at female scientists seems to reinforce the idea that all of the domestic chores are the woman's responsibility.

She's exactly right. We can spend our time discussing SAT scores, but I worry that we are missing the most important thing that keeps women out of science—the cultural attitudes that teach women that if they choose a demanding career, they aren't fulfilling their duties as wife and mother.